It’s seems we’ve always been worrying ourselves about the health consequences of MSG, the world’s most popular flavor enhancer. That’s because monosodium glutamate has been around for more than a century, invented by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1909, when the professor extracted a substance from a species of seaweed and realized it had a unique taste that wasn’t sweet, salty, sour, or bitter.
He named this new taste umami, and after toying around his lab discovered the sodium salt of the amino acid glutamate to be the best way to re-create it.
This taste, when added to food, literally tricks both your tongue and your brain into thinking whatever you’re eating tastes better than it actually does. When you sprinkle on commercially available MSG (sold as Accent) or a food manufacturer adds MSG, you’re basically adding umami-ness to your food. MSG is listed on labels under many guises, among them yeast extract, textured protein, and sodium caseinate.
“Wakes up food flavor”
Because we eat so much MSG, there have been understandable concerns about safety. The most publicized issue in recent years has been Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, first reported in a letter written in 1968 by Robert Kwok to the New England Journal of Medicine:
I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant, especially one that served northern Chinese food. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours, without hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations.
As a result of the publicity, a lot of people started reporting episodes of turning beet red, sweating, and fanning their faces after downing a plate of moo shu pork, prompting Asian restaurant menus to reassure patrons that nothing contained MSG. Because this began taking on the appearance of an epidemic, researchers wondered if it was a real event or something else, like the effect of alcohol, a panic attack, or poor air conditioning in the restaurant. Several research projects were initiated and scientists set up double-blind, placebo-controlled studies testing clinical responses to MSG. In some studies, the worst reactions came from subjects given the placebo, confusing everybody. In others, nothing seemed consistent.
Now, 40 years later, the general consensus is this: some people are sensitive to large amounts of MSG and should probably avoid it. The syndrome has been renamed “MSG symptom complex” and should be regarded as seriously annoying rather than dangerous.
But can MSG actually be a threat to health?
Well, of course this depends on who you read. The FDA, whatever your opinion of it, lists MSG as safe. So does the head dietician at Mayo Clinic. This is also the position taken by most FDA-like organizations around the world. Their attitude apparently takes the approach that since MSG has been used for so long and in such great quantities, and because no chronic illnesses have been identified, it must be harmless.
At the other end, everyone’s favorite alarmist Joe Mercola, DO, discusses MSG in an article entitled “Is this silent killer lurking in your kitchen cabinets?” He refers to the work of neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock’s book Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills. Excitotoxins are a group of substances including both MSG and aspartame that “overexcite” brain and nerve cells literally to the point of cell death, causing learning disabilities in children, brain damage, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. By overexciting heart cells, the thinking is that excitotoxins lead to heart attacks and arrhythmias.
But Dr. Blaylock’s theories and opinions, interesting to both Dr. Mercola and me, really have not panned out clinically. For example, the US death rate from Alzheimer’s disease is ten times higher than that of Japan, one of the highest MSG-consuming nations on earth.
Full disclosure: I was an MSG-addicted latchkey kid
Are there health consequences of “making good food taste better?” Before I tell you about a newly published study, I have a personal experience to share. When I was about 12, I was a latchkey child, an only child with both parents working. I prepared my own supper, which I rather liked because I made whatever I wanted to eat and could eat as much as I wanted. While making a hamburger one evening, I discovered the little red box of Accent and sprinkled some on. “Wow!” I said, “That was the best hamburger I ever ate!” It was so good in fact, I made another.
The next day I really looked forward to going home and cooking. And eating. And buying my own boxes of Accent. Fried chicken? Pork chops? The best! It even turned my Campbell’s soup, Hormel chili, Dinty Moore beef stew, and Chef Boyardee ravioli into succulent gastronomic delights.
And by the time I was 13, I’d gained about 40 (yes, 40) pounds without any appreciable vertical thrust. I was clinically classified as an obese child, taken to an obesity specialist (the term “bariatric” had not yet been invented), and prescribed an assortment of pills–probably amphetamine appetite suppressants–which I popped throughout the day. As anyone who’s overweight knows, it takes years of hard work to get the weight down and keep it off. My weight has been a struggle ever since.
So the question becomes, “Does MSG cause food cravings, obesity, and put you at risk for the consequences of obesity?”
The latest studies give credence to the idea that MSG is a lot like nicotine, making us addicted to food. We eat more and gain weight. The most prevalent health issue in developed countries around the world is obesity, and in the wake of obesity we develop so-called metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, and fatty liver.
One fact is worthy of special attention: our worldwide weight gain aligns neatly with the worldwide increased consumption of MSG.
When groups of lab mice were given food enhanced with MSG, they all became more obese than non-MSG mice; many developed a fatty liver. In an earlier study in China, working with people rather than mice, researchers tracking more than 10,000 apparently healthy adults according to their MSG use found a direct correlation between obesity and the MSG content of their daily diets.
So, yes, the real danger of MSG is that it does its job too well. Once we like our food “umamied,” we’re hooked. And just like containers of Chinese food, here’s a no-surprise take-away: processed foods and commercially prepared foods often have an addictive potential because they contain MSG or one of its many aliases. We’re surrounded by cheap, nutritionally mediocre food with MSG-enhanced flavors and that MSG excites our taste buds and brains.
We eat and eat and eat.
BTW, to avoid MSG, buy whole foods, prepare them yourself, and hold the Accent. Read more here about foods that naturally contain umami, from seaweed, Parmesan, and caramelized mushrooms to fish sauce, and enjoy the deeply satisfying taste in your home-cooked meals.
David Edelberg, MD